The Nightingale (Ye Ying/Le promeneur d'oiseau): Film Review

Lush technical values, an engaging turn from its lead and some contextual relevance to Chinese society keeps the film from dwelling on its much-performed tune.

The second-ever official French-Chinese co-production sees French director Philippe Muyl adapt his 2002 film about the bond-building journey between an old man and a young girl to rural, southwestern China.

Theoretically, Philippe Muyl's latest film is a Chinese take on his last feature The Butterfly (Le papillon); in reality, The Nightingale is similar to the 2002 film only in spirit, and only just. Both involve an old man and a young girl establishing some kind of rapport on a journey across the countryside; but whereas The Butterfly sees a vibrant child imposing herself on a grumpy pensioner, The Nightingale is a story about a benign retiree forging a solid bond with his petulant granddaughter.

The alteration in the dynamics between the two characters makes perfect sense as Muyl relocates his original French story to China for what is now the second-ever official co-production between the two countries. With Beijing's long-running one-child policy, the issue of parents pampering their offspring to the point of creating a generation of spoilt brats has been much discussed in recent years; The Nightingale's narrative arc of teasing a kid's open, curious inner self out her egocentric, iPad-attached shell is perhaps what the Chinese authorities would really want to see.

Whether audiences would warm to this, however, is another matter. Boasting of Sun Ming's lavish cinematography – the rural landscapes of the southwestern Chinese province of Guangxi are rendered in remarkably lush, warm tones, as is Beijing's new bourgeois milieu rendered cold and unfriendly – and an engaging performance from Li Baotian (Ju Dou) as the grandfather, The Nightingale is technically remarkable. Beyond its socio-political context, however, the film offers hardly anything inventive to the familiar generation-gap rite-of-passage dramedy; festival bookings – such as its premiere in Busan, and then the outing on Thursday at the ScreenSingapore trade event – are probably where the film's future lies rather than commercial runs in either France or China.

In the film, veteran actor Li plays Zhu Zhigen, a widower who lives on his own in a small apartment in an old tenement in Beijing; on the other side of town lives Renxing (newcomer Yang Xinyi), who spends most of her days fiddling with his digital gadgets in the very affluent (but lonely) life provided to her by her jet-setting architect father Chongyi (Qin Hao, Spring Fever) and business executive mother Qianying (Li Xiaoran, Les filles du botaniste).

Their worlds are destined to be disparate – driven not just between the pair's generational differences, but also Zhigen's rift with his son – until the parents are forced to ask the old man to take Renxing on his journey back to his hometown when they discovered they and their maid are all due to leave town at the same time. The girl unwillingly begins what she sees as a tortuous cross-country journey by train, bus and finally on foot, and shows – perhaps in too contrived situations – all the hallmarks of the shallow, troublesome urbanite, ranging from her exclamation that she needs cosmetic surgery for the "disfigurement" of mosquito bites to her claims of wanting fame, fortune and a residence in New York as her objectives in life.

It's of course nearly inevitable that some kind of reconciliation will take place, and Li is instrumental in keeping the momentum going by never resorting easily to playing the frustrated but perennially generous granddad – his Zhigen has a cantankerous side to his general mix of generosity and melancholy (something which underlines his motive of making the trip in the first place), and Li balances Yang's sometimes excessively artificial turn with calibrations to the conversation and interaction.

Perhaps interestingly, The Nightingale also stops short of overplaying the exotic card: rather than building the two main protagonists' transformation through their inner self-rediscovery through a hackneyed naïvete of their new rustic friends, Muyl and co-producer Ning Ning's screenplay positions the locals as more than just bumpkins: Zhigen meets a young man who has studied overseas (in Bordeaux), while the film's climax, in which Renxing tries to get a local boy to trade something with her, has the ingenuous country kid chastising Renxing's iPhone 4S as being "so dated." Of course, this also perhaps rhymes with the official discourse of confirming how so-called modernization has reached even the far-flung corners of the country; still it's a conscious subversion of a cliché which at least briefly makes The Nightingale voicing a different tune.

Venue: ScreenSingapore
Production Companies: Pan Eurasia Films, Envision Films, Stellar Mega Films
Director: Philippe Muyl
Cast: Li Baotian, Yang Xinyi, Li Xiaoran, Qin Hao
Producer: Ning Ning, Qin Hong,Paul Delbecq, Steve Rene
Screenwriter: Philippe Muyl, Ning Ning
Director of Cinematography: Sun Ming
Editors: Kako Kelber, Manu de Sousa
Music: Armand Amar
International Sales: Kinology
In Mandarin, Guangxi-dialect Chinese and French
100 minutes